Overcoming Working Mom Guilt: Why Moms Should Never Be Ashamed to Be Ambitious - Happy as a Mother

Overcoming Working Mom Guilt: Why Moms Should Never Be Ashamed to Be Ambitious

with Law Professor and Author Lara Bazelon


  • Why the Idea of “Balance” Is Unrealistic
  • How Intensive Mothering Creates Added Pressures for Working Moms
  • Why It’s Important to Find Your Own Path in Motherhood
  • The Role Gender Bias Plays in Motherhood Expectations
  • How to Overcome Working Mom Guilt
  • The First Step to Reclaiming Your Ambition as a Working Mom

Overcoming working mom guilt isn’t easy. Intensive mothering ideals, the perfect mother myth, and social expectations tell us that we should put ourselves on the backburner and always put our children first. 

But moms can embrace fulfillment outside of motherhood, thriving in their careers and showing their children that it’s okay to prioritize themselves. Lara Bazelon, law professor and author of Ambitious Like a Mother, joins us to discuss mom life balance and overcoming working mom guilt.

Grieving the Loss of My Identity

When I became a mother, I lost myself in so many ways. I’m fortunate to live in a country with paid maternity leave, and I was grateful that I got to stay home during the postpartum period. 

But I found myself struggling. 

Each day, I watched my husband get dressed in his real clothes and head out to pursue his career, ready to conquer work achievements, eat lunch with his colleagues, and challenge himself. 

I looked at myself, covered in spit-up, surrounded by bouncers and swings and diapers, microwaving my coffee and eating granola bars on the fly as I tried to take care of my babies. 

I found myself mourning the loss of the life I once had. My identity had changed overnight. Everything that had once been important to me now had to be on the backburner. 

I was jealous of my husband’s freedom. And I was ready to go back to work. 

I value care work and respect moms who stay at home to raise their children. I just knew that I wanted something different. I wanted something outside of motherhood. I wanted to get dressed in my real clothes, eat lunch with my colleagues, and challenge myself. 

And yet…a little voice inside my head told me that I shouldn’t want that—that I should be fulfilled by being at home with my kids. 

Intensive mothering ideology tells us that motherhood should be everything—that we should put our own needs on the backburner and focus all of our energy on our kids. 

So even when moms do return to the workforce, they often find themselves battling working mom guilt—they feel like failures for being away from their children, guilty when they prioritize their careers, and pressure to balance work and still be “perfect” moms. 

It took a lot of unlearning for me to realize that it was okay to want a role for myself that was different—that it was okay to want to forge my career path and be driven by something beyond motherhood. 

When I heard about Lara Bazelon’s book, the title jumped out at me—Ambitious Like a Mother. I couldn’t wait to chat with her about ambition, working mom guilt, and the search for fulfillment outside of motherhood. 

Why the Idea of “Balance” Is Unrealistic

I often hear from my clients who are working moms that they feel like they are failing at both work and motherhood—they are torn in so many directions and have trouble keeping up with everything. 

That is something Lara understands. When she returned to her job as a lawyer after becoming a mom, people would often ask her how she did it all and how she balanced everything. 

But she actually felt out of balance. Lara describes being a working mom like a seesaw—it’s never going to be a perfect balance, and that’s okay. 

Moms are told they need to balance everything, but they are also expected to be moms first, often sacrificing career ambitions. That same pressure doesn’t apply to dads. Dads aren’t expected to put their careers on the backburner for their children. 

This is just one of many double standards and gender norms that moms face. We hold ourselves to an impossible standard that is fed to us by society, social media, and even our own upbringing. 

We’re taught that being a good mom means being present constantly, being always  “on,” and tending to our child’s every need. 

But the reality is that being a working mom is messy. Sometimes your kids pop up on Zoom meetings. Sometimes you miss a game or a recital.

Being a working mom means sometimes work takes priority. Lara believes moms shouldn’t be ashamed of that. She also believes that if we redefine our expectations rather than searching for a perfect balance, we can find more happiness in work and at home. 

How Intensive Mothering Creates Added Pressures for Working Moms

But redefining those expectations is easier said than done. The majority of us have been socialized into an intensive mothering ideology—a set of beliefs and expectations that moms must be the primary nurturers and caregivers at all times. 

Lara points out that we have been conditioned to think that there is something feminine about changing diapers, preparing food, setting up playdates, and carrying the mental labour in the home. If we aren’t the ones to do those things, we think there’s something wrong with us. 

But it shouldn’t have to be that way—much of the labour in the home can be done by somebody else. Lara also pointed out that not every task in the home is fulfilling—plenty of it is dull and boring. 

This idea that every moment is precious—every second of motherhood is sand through an hourglass you’re never getting back can be harmful. It makes us feel as though we must constantly be present, and if we miss any of those precious moments we’re “bad moms.” 

Lara encountered that feeling many times when she would show up to school events on her lunch break from work, bringing a store-bought dessert and showing up in a suit. 

She would look around and wonder if she was doing something wrong—telling herself that if she was a good mother, she wouldn’t be late, she would show up with something homemade, and she would stay and socialize with the other moms instead of going back to the office. 

But she had to reframe that way of thinking. The effort we put into our careers matters—it takes hard work, skill, dedication, and ambition. Our commitment to work doesn’t make us bad moms. 

Lara believes that if you are the type of mom who wants a career, who aches for something outside of motherhood, then that commitment actually makes you the best mom you can be, giving you the chance to fulfill your passions and contribute to the world. 

Why It’s Important to Find Your Own Path in Motherhood

She was quick to point out that there’s nothing wrong with staying at home if you can afford to and that is what makes you happy. The trouble comes in when we aren’t able to make the choices that align with our values. 

Instead of engaging in mommy wars and belittling other moms’ choices, we should all realize that we are pawns in a culture war that tells us there is only one right way to be a mother. 

There are plenty of moms out there who are breaking the mould and embracing motherhood in their own ways. Those of us who want to mother differently can look to them as examples. We can embrace diversity in motherhood. 

We can also give permission to other mothers to do it differently. This is why Lara is open with her law students about being a working mom. She wants to normalize the struggle of motherhood and show her students that there are many paths available to them—both in their careers and in their families. 

It also benefits our children when we live in a way that fulfills us. If we sacrifice our careers just because we think we should, there can be a certain level of unhappiness and resentment that our children pick up on. But if we take care of ourselves and live a life that feels right to us, we set the example that prioritizing yourself is important. 

When we carve out our own paths as mothers, rather than living based on social expectations, it has a ripple effect on everyone around us. 

The Role Gender Bias Plays in Motherhood Expectations

Lara often shares a story that causes people to raise their eyebrows at her. She missed her daughter’s 7th birthday. She had to travel to try a case. When she told her husband, he urged her to ask the judge to move the date. 

But she knew that her daughter would have other birthdays, but her client only had one shot. Moving ahead was her client’s best chance of winning. So she chose to prioritize work in that particular situation. 

Many people balk when she tells this story—but she points out that if it were her husband, nobody would bat an eye. 

Gender norms tell us that moms must be there for their children always, but it doesn’t do the same for dads. 

When moms choose to combat gender norms and unlearn the expectations they have been given, it can cause conflict if their partners are not on the same page. It takes unlearning on both sides.

Lara pointed out that the basic, mundane, boring parts of life matter. We should try to have conversations before we have children about what the day-to-day responsibilities of life will look like, including whose career will take priority after we have kids. We should talk about it through the lens of gender bias as well. 

We won’t always stick to what we visualize, but at least we will go into parenthood knowing that there are larger forces, including gender bias, at play in our decisions. 

How to Overcome Working Mom Guilt

Lara said that the hardest part of life as a working mom is the guilt. We are made to believe that we are doing the wrong thing if we find fulfillment outside of our roles as mothers. The inner voice of guilt can be hard to silence. 

One of the ways to overcome this working mom guilt is to keep everything in perspective on both sides. If you miss one meeting at work, it doesn’t mean your career is over. But this applies on the other side as well—if you miss some soccer games or recitals, your children won’t feel abandoned. 

Studies have shown that when it comes to time with our kids, it is the quality that matters—not the quantity. Your physical presence isn’t required at all times in order to form strong, secure bonds with your children and make them feel loved. Connecting one-on-one and having bonding experiences matters more than the amount of hours you spend with your children. 

Through the course of her work, Lara interviewed many adults who said that their moms worked and often missed practices and games. But they still most often said that their mom was the person they were closest to. 

What they remembered wasn’t the missed moments—it was the strength, resilience, independence, and passion their moms displayed. 

This is an important reframe for working moms. No one missed event, or even several missed events, will break your attachment with your child. Your relationship is not formed on the sidelines of a soccer game or at a school party—it’s formed from being there for your child, helping them work through big moments and big emotions in their lives, and supporting them with safety and security. 

Mom guilt polices us, pushing us back into the intensive mothering ideologies and the belief in the perfect mother myth. But when we can start to reframe the way we think about the bonds with our children, we can realize that we don’t have to be perfect. 

There might not ever be an absence of guilt, but we can learn to support ourselves, think about where the messages that cause us to feel guilty come from, and give ourselves compassion as we work through those feelings. 

The First Step to Reclaiming Your Ambition as a Working Mom

Lara is a firm believer that moms should be ambitious in their careers if they feel pulled to work. But many moms hesitate to label themselves as “ambitious.” She wants us to destigmatize the idea that it’s wrong for women to be ambitious. 

Ambition doesn’t mean we are selfish. It doesn’t mean that we’re full of ourselves. It just means that we strive for excellence, that we strive to be better. 

Lara wants women to reclaim that word, to embrace that part of ourselves that strives for excellence. 

Ultimately, it comes down to uncovering what we truly want. If we have a desire to create joy outside of our homes, to achieve our potential, and make the world a better place in the process, we are ambitious. And if we want to build and develop and be ambitious in our careers, then we deserve to do that, even after we become mothers. 

Ambition doesn’t look any one particular way. You don’t have to be a working mom to embrace your ambition. It isn’t about any one path—it’s about discovering our joy, passions, and talents, and giving ourselves permission to embrace and excel in them. 

If you’re finding “balancing” it all difficult, and encountering sensory overload as a result, our Overstimulation Workshop can help! Learn how to find calmness in the chaos and be more present and connected with your family. Register now!

Lara Bazelon is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law where she directs the criminal and racial justice clinics. Her op-eds and essays about work, life, love, co-parenting, and motherhood have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Magazine, and Slate among other media outlets. She is the author of the legal thriller, A GOOD MOTHER, and the nonfiction books RECTIFY and AMBITIOUS LIKE A MOTHER. The mother of a 13-year-old son and an 11 year old daughter, Lara lives with her children in the Bay Area.






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